Artificial Surfing Reefs. When Will We Get
a Wave?

Narrowneck Reef In Australia Doing its Work
Photo: Australian Surfing Reef Design

late June, Chad Nelson, the environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation,
attended a forum on artificial reefs in Raglan, New Zealand. The most newsworthy
item that came from the meeting was the news that an Australian company, Artificial
Surfing Reef Design, had been given the thumbs up to begin initial research
into creating an artificial surf reef at Oil Piers, the now defunct surf spot
near Ventura, California.

While he represents Surfrider, and thus speaks
more for then environmental side, Chad completed his master’s research on
the infamous Pratte’s Reef in El Segundo. While Pratte’s failed to create
a surf spot, it served as a valuable experiment, a lesson in coastal dynamics
and in how not to create a surf spot. So, Mr. Nelson can claim a good deal
of experience on the topic. Is there an artificial reef in your future? With
more and more interest in the structures both for erosion control and surf
creation, it’s a safe bet that the answer is…maybe.


Chris Dixon: Chad, this sort of meeting isn’t
something most surfers have even heard about.

Chad Nelson: The first was in ’96, and the second
was in ’98 and was hosted by Dave Skelly, who did a lot of work on Pratte’s
Reef. This was the third, and it was by far the best ever. There were probably
fifty in attendance. Folks from Indo, India, New Zealand, Australia the UK
and the US.

CD: Australia has built one, England was considering
one near Newquay and we’ve only had Pratte’s, right?

CN: There have been three built: Narrowneck and
Cables in Australia and Pratte’s. Cables is a flop — its in Western OZ. It
was made of rocks and they basically sank.

reef was the one we built here. It’s basically ineffective, it’s not doing
anything. Then there’s Narrowneck which is considered the grand success. That’s
the one that everyone sort of looks to. It was built by ASR.

CD: Are there more being planned?

CN: There are a ton of reefs out there being
planned. The folks at ASR just got a contract to build a reef at Oil Piers
in Ventura. There’s a Corps of Engineers project called Section 227 which
is sort of their experimental program where they find experimental projects.
There'[s sort of a competition up and down So Cal to build reefs. And they
put in the project for Oil Piers. In my opinion, if you’re going to do an
experiment, it’s a good site. There’s nothing there now and there used to
be a wave there. Basically you have the hill, Highway 101 and this big riprap
wall and nothing for miles in either direction.

There is a little beachbreak here and there that
you see guys surfing on occasionally. The Oil Piers reef is the only one I’m
aware of that has any traction at all in the U.S.

CD: When will they start working?

CN: Those guys are going out there next week
and they’ll start doing preliminary research: put out instrumentation, get
current and wave data, do bathymetry, and get a sense for the setup so they
can properly design the reef.

CD: What about other countries?

CN: Then there are five or six being planned
or in the works in New Zealand. Then there’s the reef in Newquay. Go to their
website, and you can see a lot of these plans. There are a lot of reefs out
there being planned.

How did the meeting unfold?

CN: They did a day on surf science and then a
day on coastal management. Sort of a case study on reefs. I thought the surf
science was super impressive.

There was a guy named Kimo Walker who was a coastal
engineer back in the 70’s. He sort of tried to quantify “surfability”.

By that I mean, what makes a wave break? How
does it break? What controls it? How can you describe that in sort of layman’s
terms of if it’s mushy, barreling — that sort of thing. So these guys in
ASR have really started to push that again. They’ve done detailed bathymetry
for some of the best surf spots in the world, they’ve got models running to
better understand how waves break and they’re looking at the setup offshore
that creates wave focusing at places like Rincon, Lowers, Pipeline.

CD: I was talking with Adam Wright at Surfline.
They’ve been figuring out things like the fact that a swell of a certain period
from one direction will light up Rincon, but if you take one second out of
that period, due to the swell’s different depth, it will bypass Rincon entirely.
That sort of shows the sorts of variables you have to deal with. It’s not
just sticking down a structure in the water — there’s a whole lot going on.